Napa of the North

Napa of the North

Local winemakers and other industry pros look into their crystal balls and envision northern Michigan's wine region 20 years from today. Here's a look at vintage 2033.

REGION – Larry Mawby's Suttons Bay vineyards turn 40 years old this year. As one of the early vintners, the Leelanau Peninsula grower and winemaker has seen the industry grow up around him.

His prediction for what this wine region will look like in 2033? Three times as much acreage in vineyards and twice as many wineries across the entire Traverse Bay area.

First, some perspective: Michigan has nearly 3,000 acres of wine grapes, making it the fifth largest grower of wine grapes in the nation, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Agricultural Statistics Service.

More than half of the state's wine grapes grow in northern Michigan (almost exclusively vinifera varieties) and of the more than 100 commercial wineries in the state, more than one-third of those are in this region.

Yet according to some, this area is still considered an "emerging wine market."

"We're still in a state of experimentation," said local winemaker Bryan Ulbrich, who got his start as a "cellar rat" at Peninsula Cellars on Old Mission peninsula.

Today, Ulbrich owns the six-year-old Left Foot Charley, an urban winery and custom-crush operation in Traverse City.

"We're still so young as a region," said Ulbrich. "I look at Europe, where there are 900- and 1,000-year-old vineyards. We're really just in the second generation of winemakers around here."

Twenty years from now, Ulbrich envisions a more mature region, one that has honed its potential and understands the best grapes to grow and types of wine to produce.

"Of course, there's always the wild card of the weather," he said. "We're growing grapes now that 20 years ago would have been impossible."

He likens northern Michigan's current wine market to a young Napa Valley.

"I'd say we're like Napa in 1970 just before its big breakout," he said, "Before it knocked the world over."

Ulbrich quickly added that this region will never be like Napa is now – it simply doesn't have the land to grow grapes on the scale that Napa does.

But in terms of customer acceptance of the wines this region is producing – yes, Napa.

Where Do We Grow From Here

Predictions call for doubling the current number of wineries on Old Mission Peninsula, which has eight, and Leelanau County, which has 25.

"One of the first things that strikes me is the Leelanau Peninsula Vintners Association was founded by 10 wineries in 2000," said Andy McFarlane, the association's executive director. "Now there are 25 wineries on the trail. That's a quarter of the wineries in the state. And there would be 25 on Old Mission … if there was room."

McFarlane says that the quality of Leelanau's white wines will spur the growth.

"I think Leelanau will have 50 wineries; I'd be shocked if that didn't happen," he said. "We make beautiful white wines. And that's not marketing text, that's medals."

Mawby agrees.

"Leelanau has seen an average of two-plus new wineries annually for the last several years. There's nothing out there that says that is not going to continue," he said. "Sure, there are external forces that can adversely affect the industry, but inherently there is a lot of potential for growth."

As far as grape acreage, Ulbrich sees the expansion snaking east and south.

"I think the big boom is going to come in current non-appellation areas – into Antrim and Benzie and down to Manistee and Oceana counties, along the coast," he said.

Getting more premium grapes in the ground is critical to the future success of northern Michigan's wine region, said Linda Jones, head of the Michigan Grape & Wine Industry Council.

"We make world-class wine, but we don't make enough of it," she said. "For that reason, this region can't be aggressive in the New York market or even in Chicago. When you're talking about quality world-class wines, we don't do enough. It's very expensive to plant and produce high-quality grapes."

The Grape Debate

There are about 680 acres of wine grapes growing in Leelanau County today.

"We need 500 more acres of grapes to satisfy demand locally," said Dan Matthies, owner of Chateau Fontaine in Lake Leelanau and also Peninsula Properties. "We need people to purchase property and grow grapes."

The capital investment is significant. Good acreage costs $10,000 to 15,000 an acre; on Old Mission peninsula it can run $20,000 to $25,000 an acre, Matthies said. Additional costs include $15,000 just to plant a single acre and the opportunity costs from having to wait three years before even a portion of the fruit is ready.

That massive capital investment will likely result in boutique vineyards versus large-scale operations, said Ulbrich.

Chris Baldyga, who opened 2 Lads Winery on Old Mission with Cornel Olivier in 2008, also expects to see more and more independent, or "gentlemen farmers," getting into the industry for both aesthetic or romantic reasons.

And with small comes specialty, which many say is the next phase of this wine region's development.

2 Lads Winery only makes dry wines; L. Mawby Vineyards in Leelanau started specializing in sparkling wines in the early 1990s and has maintained that focus.

Baldyga said having a specialty means some potential customers may leave unsatisfied, but rather than being a bad thing, it's a sign of a true wine country.

Mawby agrees.

"Twenty years from now, we may see a winery making only Rieslings or nothing but fruit wines," he said. "There are no specialty fruit wineries even though we grow great fruit here."

Some states have even gone as far as choosing a signature grape for their wine region, Jones said.

"In Oregon, it's pinot noir. In New York, it's Riesling," she said. "But the council doesn't want to pigeon hole growers."

There is also a bit of industry forecasting in terms of current non-grape fruit farmers diversifying their crops to include the in-demand product. Some in the industry argue that a good sweet cherry orchard makes a good vineyard site. Others say that isn't the case. Either way, the secret of prime grape-growing conditions here is a secret no longer.

"The word is out in the grape-growing community," Mawby said about the growers from California coming here in recent years.

Too Much of a Good Thing?

No matter the growth rate, industry prognosticators say that there is no fear of oversaturation in the marketplace.

"Honestly, I'm so excited about the future," said Baldyga. "I have no idea of a saturation point for wineries."

Mawby envisions a multi-platform sales model.

"I think in 20 years we'll see all different kinds of sales models, from tasting rooms to distributor-only, and everything in between," he said. "I don't see saturation being a huge issue. I do see 'me too-ism' possibly becoming a problem … copying or a lack of original ideas."

Jones thinks that each winery's story will be essential to growth.

"Wine is very personal," she said. "People want wine stories and successful wineries are really working on that experience. That's how we'll sustain growth."

Even though distribution of local wines is increasing, it will likely never overtake the way most people get wine from this area – by coming here, said LPVA's McFarlane. Mix that with the freshwater playground that surrounds each peninsula and it's a winning combination.

"Wine is going to become the tourist driver," he said. "I don't think people really understand that yet."

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